28. April 2022 | Magazine:

Saving Energy Together: The Right Mindset Professor Martin Korte on the power of habit and teamwork in energy consumption

Turning off the computer and the lights in time, turning down the heating, ventilating at regular intervals instead of continuously – there are many ways to reduce one’s own energy consumption. It is at least equally as important, however, to be aware of one’s own and other people’s routines. Professor Martin Korte, member of the Energy Advisory Board and Director of the Zoological Institute at TU Braunschweig, reveals in an interview with Mark Winter what the right mindset is for saving energy and why we are dependent on all our colleagues for this.

Professor Martin Korte is a member of the Energy Advisory Board and Director of the Zoological Institute at Technische Universität Braunschweig. Photo credit: János Krüger/TU Braunschweig

Professor Korte, you are the director of the Zoological Institute. What are your responsibilities when it comes to the topic of “saving energy at TU Braunschweig”?

On the one hand, I am delegated to TU Braunschweig’s Energy Advisory Board via the Strategy Commission. The Energy Advisory Board takes care of all the concerns of the users, the Governance Board and the energy advisors with regard to energy consumption at TU Braunschweig – but above all with regard to user justice. For example, every institute at our university has an energy account. In this function, I am also always involved in the thought process on how TU Braunschweig can further save energy.

On the other hand, I am also the Institute Director and responsible for ensuring that the administration of the Zoological Institute functions properly. In this role, I feel responsible for how the individual departments consume energy. New concepts for sustainable solutions and energy savings have already been tested and implemented at the Institute under my leadership. For example, five years ago the lighting was changed to LED energy-saving lamps, which count towards our energy budget. Another example is the ventilation systems in the laboratories, where it is not only about energy savings, but above all about occupational safety. Here, organic volatile substances and sometimes even toxins have to be extracted. But you have to consider how long the ventilation at the extractor hoods has to be switched on. We have also shut down several cold chambers. And in addition, I am the one who reminds the staff in the institute not to leave the computers on unnecessarily and to shut them down after work.

Should I imagine the energy account as a bank account into which you deposit and withdraw funds?

No, there is a slight difference. The energy account is a budget. In order to determine this budget, the energy demand of the university buildings was measured over a period of two years and an average value was calculated for how much energy each individual building consumes. This average value already took into account some savings measures. This energy demand was then converted into a budget that is available to each building. For example, our building at the Biozentrum houses five institutes. We know exactly how much space the institutes located in the building have. The energy budget for each individual institute is then calculated on this area. At the end of the year, the institute then receives feedback on how much energy it has consumed and saved. In case of success, this not only gives you a good feeling, but also a financial incentive, because the institute gets a share of the saved energy costs. This can be several thousand euros a year.

Feedback is also important for the learning process. How do your employees get feedback on the energy savings?

The employees get feedback via the money we save on energy costs. The savings are communicated transparently. Of course, not just the financial aspect plays a role. We have the aspiration that we as an institute also want to do something for the climate, meaning of course that CO2 and heat savings are also important. We see climate protection as a joint project in which everyone has to make a contribution. Not only at the institute or the university, but nationally. If Germany wants to make its contribution to the 1.5 degree target of the Paris Climate Agreement, then everyone must help. That’s why we at the institute are taking part in the city cycling programme, for example. This is not taken into account in the energy budget, but it also saves energy and CO2 directly and has the effect, which should not be underestimated, of strengthening the community and raising awareness for climate protection.

Where can employees save energy in their daily work?

At the Zoological Institute we save energy by consistently switching off computers and lights when they are not in use. Then it is the case that we normally – under non-pandemic conditions – only ventilate the rooms and never have windows permanently open. This saves a lot of heating energy. The storage of working materials also plays a role. A refrigerator at minus 20 degrees Celsius consumes more energy than one at plus four degrees Celsius. That’s why we think about where materials can be stored adequately. But the essentials remain computers and window openings.

Where is the most energy consumed in everyday work? What are typical “energy guzzlers”?

It’s easy to make a mistake. The biggest energy guzzlers are the ones you don’t even notice. Here in the Biologie Zentrum, it’s by far the ventilation, which you always take for granted. The university has already done a lot with ventilation in recent years. On the one hand, ventilation times and turnover have been optimised. On the other hand, TU has invested money and raised funds to install a new ventilation system here in the Biologie Zentrum. This saves several hundred thousand euros in electricity.

What other specific energy consumers are there at your institute?

These are mainly lasers for microscopes that have to be cooled. In addition, there are rooms that have to be cooled because substances and solutions must not get too warm in the work process. It is mainly these lasers and air-conditioning systems that have a high energy consumption in our institute.

What is the right mindset for saving energy? Do I have to have a guilty conscience if I leave the window open?

That is exactly the balancing act. I believe that now is a good time to think about where I personally consume energy. A classic example is the way to work. Normally, one would say that in normal temperature conditions, a commute of up to five kilometres can be made by bicycle or on foot without any problems. It’s about questioning one’s own habits. The greatest community effect, however, comes from reminding employees and colleagues of their habits. For example, if a colleague always switches on the PC and then makes himself a cup of coffee before starting work ten minutes later, he should be made aware of this habit.

But we don’t need any know-it-alls. Saving energy is always a balancing act and a weighing of costs and benefits. It is difficult to question when who consumes energy and how. Not every flight, for example, should be considered solely from the point of view of environmental damage. Our university, for example, wants to become more international and open a HUB in Singapore. It is unavoidable that people fly there. It would be inappropriate to point the finger here. On the other hand, we also have flights within Europe, for example to Paris. Is it absolutely necessary to fly there or can’t you also travel there by express train? You have to weigh up time savings and CO2 consumption. We have to take care of each other and politely question the habits of other people, departments and institutes without being a know-it-all. It’s always very difficult to put oneself in the specific situation. The basic assumption should be that no one wastes energy on purpose. There is a difference between purposeful and careless. Habits and routines run unconsciously and you have to become aware of them – especially when it comes to your own energy consumption.

Why should we think about our energy consumption right now?

There are two reasons. One reason is the Paris Climate Agreement with its 1.5 degree target. In order to achieve the goal, all private individuals are called upon to examine for themselves where CO2 can be saved. It is not enough to remain at the status quo and think that we are already consuming the minimum amount of CO2. Then we will miss the 1.5 degree target. The second aspect is the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Our university will also face enormous challenges here, because electricity and energy prices will rise massively and the state of Lower Saxony itself will not compensate for this. This means that we have a budget as TU Braunschweig and how much energy we consume is our own responsibility. This is different from salary increases, for example. The state compensates for these. On the other hand, increases in energy prices are the problem of our university alone. If we want to remain financially viable, we have to save energy.

This is not a theoretical problem. Every member of staff is called upon to consider where energy can be saved. It could be lowering the heating by half a degree, or turning on appliances later. We will also have to think about whether the winter break can be extended in order to save on heating costs. I’m throwing a few ideas into the ring here. But that’s exactly what all TU employees are called upon to do. Anyone can submit suggestions by email (energiesparen@tu-braunschweig.de) and these will then be edited and published on a separate website. Best practice examples are also welcome here. For example, if there is a conference where participants are rewarded for travelling by train and not by plane, then this conference can be submitted. In addition, there must be constant reminders of energy-saving behaviour in all kinds of communication channels. Because once again: we cannot and must not sit back! Rising energy prices may mean millions of euros in additional costs for TU Braunschweig that cannot be used for other projects.

What simple tips that can be implemented in the short term to save energy immediately do you have for all employees?

First of all, becoming aware of your own habits and thinking about how I can change these habits to energy-saving behaviour. But it also helps to recognise your colleagues’ routines and draw their attention to them in a friendly way. It is often difficult to become clear about one’s own routines, because they run unconsciously. This is where we need the support of other people. In addition, an internal departmental/institutional brainstorming session on where energy can be saved is a good idea. Among other things, this can be about aspects of space utilisation. Are rooms actually used or are they empty most of the time? In the latter case, can these rooms not be shared with other departments? There are many starting points where energy can be saved.

So saving energy is only possible together?

Exactly. In any case, we need both – we need to observe ourselves and others at the same time, and the best way to do that is without falling into a know-it-all attitude.

Thank you for the interview.